Blaise liked to joke that he was the free gift with purchase upon the wedding of his mother to the dermatologist with a house on the beach and, even better, a casita that was now exclusively Blaise’s domain. Blaise not so secretly called his new stepfather the pimp. A snide reference to the lucrative pimple popping business that purchased the dermatologist’s silver Porsche, Blaise’s green Karmann Ghia and his mother’s candy apple red convertible Mercedes, along with the beach house. Though recently the dermatologist had moved past pimple popping and onto saving lives. The news that the sun, a nearly inescapable presence in South Florida, caused cancer, created a financial windfall for the dermatologist that was beyond his wildest dreams.

Blaise’s mother was a once upon a time waitress, and her experience in the hospitality industry was now exclusively directed toward her new husband. No matter when I was there to visit Blaise, his mother appeared underdressed. As far as I could tell her wardrobe consisted of terry cloth short-shorts, slip on cork platform sandals, and a variety of tube tops, as if at any moment she might be called upon to have sex quickly.

She also sunbathed topless, taking a long time to lather on the appropriate prescription sunscreen. Flat on her back the double orbs glistened in the sun, a diamond heart pendant nestled snugly in her cleavage, a belly chain draped across her hips, and against her flat stomach, the long manicured fingers of her left hand, weighted by a diamond so large it looked fake, loosely gripped a can of Tab. The outdoor surround sound speakers filtered a never-ending rotation of disco hits featuring the Gloria’s: Estefan and Gaynor and her body vibrated against the chaise lounge, even in the silence between tracks.

To reach Blaise’s casita I had to take the path cutting directly across the pool area to the gravel walkway that led to the entrance, unless I was coming from the beach, which I hardly ever did. It never seemed to matter to his mother that she was on display and soon enough, her nakedness became as invisible as her clothing.

The section of beach the house occupied was a quiet enclave that faced the Gulf of Mexico, near a rocky inlet that led to the inter-coastal waterway. Yet inside Blaise’s four walls you would never know the sun shined or the water lapped at the edges of the sand turning it the shade of wet concrete. In the living room black-out curtains were pressed against the windows and the volume of the stereo was usually cranked high to obliterate the offending music coming from the pool area, erasing any and all sounds of the world outside his door.

Due to the lack of fresh air, there was a slightly chemical smell mixed with something sweet, most likely from the bowls of sugar that covered nearly every surface. Blaise liked to empty the brightly colored paper pixie sticks of candied sugar into bowls and refill the hollow cylinders with drugs. The process consisted of tweezers, a toothpick and a drop of glue to reseal the paper stick, all kept on a silver tray that Blaise put on the table between us while we watched old movies in the afternoon.

They were the perfect decanter, unassuming and easy to transport and Blaise was so casual about it that he always kept a few sticks in his back pocket. Once, during class, our art teacher came up behind Blaise standing at his easel and plucked a stick from his pocket, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger until the colors blended a solid pink, while he waxed nostalgic about penny candy. I held my breath from across the room as Blaise lazily stabbed a brush in the direction of his painting until the Valium filled stick was back in his possession.

Blaise and I were in studio art together that last year of high school, a class reserved for seniors serious about art school, although Blaise mostly spent his time perched on a stool next to me talking while I worked, his painting or drawing abandoned. He was quick witted and made me laugh, his observations about people and life were sharp and wise, or maybe he just said aloud the things other people only thought. While he never produced anything during class I was consistently amazed that on portfolio days Blaise would arrive with a ratty bloated sketchbook filled with curled and torn pages, but on those pages were the most exquisite little pen and ink renderings. It was where I first saw his mother’s sunbathing form, supine on a lounge, the view of the drawing was as if you were kneeling at her feet, her breasts rose in front of her, obliterating all but the tip of her chin and nose.

We were an unlikely duo. I was cautious where Blaise was reckless. I barely took aspirin while Blaise regularly dipped his hand into his stash sifting through self-medicating confetti colored pills and popping them casually, without care to the after effects of his prescription cocktail. He had parties nightly with small carefully curated groups of people, knowing instinctively what personalities mixed together would amuse or anger him. There were plenty of drugs and alcohol and always those damn bowls of sugar. Often to my disgust people licked their fingertips and plunged them wet into the bowls only to retract them and suck the sugar as if it were nectar.

For a time I was his constant, often curled in a corner of the rattan couch covered in a crazy flamingo pattern, my bare legs and feet tucked beneath me, a sketchbook in my lap. It was Blaise who had encouraged me to draw his guests and at first I thought they would think it bizarre, but the higher they were, people seemed flattered by their likeness. And while I was reluctant to let the sketches go, Blaise would occasionally ask me to give one away, his hand circled around my wrist, the pad of his thumb pressed softly as if he were taking my pulse, the corners of his mouth turned down, his eyelids at the stoners salute of half-mast. He would make sure I signed each and every one of them and then he would carefully admonish the recipient to take care of the drawing, that I was going to be famous one day. He would help me tear the sheet from the pad so it wouldn’t rip, and I would watch the ragged broken tooth edge of the paper as it was lifted from my lap and into the greedy hands of one of Blaise’s guests. I tried not to think about it jammed in a pocket, used to wipe snot, or fluttering away lost to the Gulf breeze.

Blaise attracted attention with his casual good looks. While the dermatologist and Blaise’s mother exemplified the waning days of disco, Blaise was like a throwback to a generation of WASP’s bred for the Ivy League. His wardrobe consisted of rumpled khaki pants shredded at the hem, faded Lacoste polo shirts and oversized white cotton button downs. He was unfailingly polite around adults, as if good breeding was his birthright. He charmed my mother, accepted the offer of her wildly uneven health food store meals, and allowed my younger brother to sit behind the wheel of the Karmann Ghia for as long as he wanted, practicing for the day he could drive. The greedy way Blaise looked upon my pedestrian family made my life at home nearly tolerable, but only through his eyes.

I knew my mother suspected Blaise was my boyfriend, but the truth was while we spent afternoons watching movies tucked into the respective corners of his couch and our evenings together as well, he had never so much as made a move to hold my hand. I told myself I was done with high school boys anyhow, even though Blaise hardly qualified as the typical boy. Once, our hands touched the gearshift at the same time and he slid his fingers from underneath mine with a cool indifference that left me shriveled until he turned his lazy smile on me, and made a joke that only I understood.

Christopher was a recurring guest at Blaise’s parties. He spent a lot of time sitting or standing near the couch where I was drawing. He made small talk with Blaise and me, paid attention to what was playing on the turntable, jumping up to change an album or make a suggestion. He made a mix tape for Blaise and sat with his head bowed and his fingers tapping the beat out on his thigh as we listened to it, but was otherwise quiet. I never saw him lick sugar from his fingertips or even accept one of the pixie sticks. He drank, but seemed unaffected by what was going on around him. I understood from the conversation that he had graduated the year before, gone off to Gainesville on a football scholarship, been injured the first month and hadn’t played since. He was atypical for a jock: tall and dark, with sharp cheekbones and a wild tumble of black hair. His exotic good looks added to his appeal and his mystery. I had caught Blaise on more than one occasion studying Christopher when he thought no one was looking. The one time our eyes met Blaise had winked at me and made a gesture as if I should go for it. Stung, I rolled my eyes and turned away. The insincerity on both our parts was palpable.

There was always a point during those nights when the air inside the casita got too close and I would get up and slip outside to the beach to breath. Christopher began to meet me there, at first I thought by coincidence but then I noticed he followed me outside and it was too intentional to brush off, still he was company. We walked along the edge of the water. Our conversations were peppered with talk about the future as if it would never come. Christopher wanted to know where I was applying to school. How I knew Blaise. He wanted to know if I came here every night. What I wanted to be when I grew up. He admitted that he had only accepted the football scholarship because he had no other ideas, no money, no family to back him up. When he got hurt he had the choice to rehab, but his heart wasn’t in it so he left. He was living in his uncle’s trailer on land in Immokalee where the only industry was the prison. He was working construction, trying to make enough money to join a buddy in Texas where the jobs were plentiful and paid well. He thought at one time of taking the test to become a state trooper, which only struck me as odd that he was spending all of his nights inside Blaise’s casita.

One evening I returned inside to find the living room packed with people and Blaise in his bedroom with the door shut. It took several tries on my part to get him to flip the lock. He let me in, re-locked the door and returned to his bed with his arm thrown across his face. The sliding glass doors that faced the beach were curtain-less and wide open, in contrast to the cave of the main room, everything in here was bathed in a silver light from the beach.

“That Indian wants you,” Blaise said, his voice muffled by his arm.

“What are you talking about?” I knew what he meant, but it was so unlike Blaise to ever get this personal, I really wasn’t sure what he expected me to say. I ignored his slam about Christopher’s Seminole heritage, only because I was caught up in the idea that he was jealous.

“He waits for you. Every night. He waits until you get up and he follows you outside.”

“I know.”

“Has he touched you?”

“No.” The fact that anyone would physically desire me was still a new concept. I was slim-hipped and nearly flat-chested, easily going without a bra. If my hair had been shorter I could have passed for a boy, especially from the back. I remember I turned to look at Blaise and was surprised to see him staring at me in the dark. I crawled onto the bed, nearly faint with fear. I didn’t want to be rejected by him, but I was more scared of something else, I just couldn’t name it.

He held out his arm and I curled against the length of him, my face pressed into his shirt. I could feel his heart, or maybe it was my own. My mouth was dry and I couldn’t speak and I remember never feeling more like a child in that moment, more aware of what I hadn’t done yet. When Blaise finally kissed me there was an urgency to touch skin to skin, but nothing else. His brain seemed to want it more than his body and although we managed to make an attempt at pleasing each other, something was missing. Several times he stopped and asked if I thought Christopher would touch me like he was touching me, if Christopher would kiss my ear, my neck, the base of my throat and I didn’t know what to say in response. He was at his most passionate when he wasn’t looking at me, when our positions shifted and we came face to face with our eyes wide open, he looked shocked to see that he was in bed with me.

After that night we avoided each other until Blaise stopped coming to class and eventually school all together. At graduation I waited to hear his name, seven letters of the alphabet in front of me, but was not surprised that he wasn’t there to receive his diploma.

I left for art school in Atlanta. It was a program recommended by my teacher and so I went without a second thought. The dormitory housing was full and I was placed in a high-rise apartment off of Peachtree Street in the heart of the city. Nothing was as I expected. There was a payphone outside the building and I made my weekly collect call home where I said nothing of any consequence because I only called to hear my mother’s voice, and I clung to her recitation of the normalcy of her days as if I never left.

At the end of October, a few days before Halloween, a manila envelope arrived from home. I opened it expecting one of my mother’s goofy packages of newspaper clippings of people I didn’t care about, random photos she’d run across, coupons for things I would never buy. Instead inside there was another envelope addressed to me at my home address.

The envelope had been taped shut with band-aids and I lifted each of them slowly and carefully to avoid the sting as if I was peeling them from tender flesh. I reached inside and slid out a page torn from a sketchbook. The paper felt brittle in my hands and I hesitated to turn it over. When I did I revealed a carefully rendered drawing in fine black ink. I recognized Blaise’s bed and me, curled into the corner, my head on a pillow. I was sleeping on my side with my hand beneath my cheek, the sheets and blankets gathered like the tight fists of roses right before they flower, down around my feet. My knees were bent against my torso, so that hardly any of my body was exposed, just a slight curve of hip and the swell of buttocks, nothing more, just a whisper of what was to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ROBIN ANTALEK is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins2010). The Summer We Fell Apart was featured as a Target Breakout Book in 2010 and was published in Turkey by Artemis Seveler in 2011. Robin's short fiction has appeared in Fifty-Two Short Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, among others. She was a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Short Fiction as well as a two time finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters and Short Fiction Contests. She is also a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. For news and updates: www.robinantalek.com or Robin Antalek on Facebook.

52 responses to “Pimps and Pixie Sticks”

  1. mutterhals says:

    That was fantastic, I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. This so beautifully written! A wonderful story! I could a lot more about your time with Blaise. And your moments with his mother. WOW: the belly chain, the breasts, the can of TAB. So perfectly depicted.

    Do you still have that drawing? I hope so!

    Just learning to tweet. I’m going to tweet this now.

    • Oh, you tweet! Sweet 😉 !!! okay, bad joke… thanks for the tweet.

      I left art school after my first year and headed north. My possessions scattered across the states yet the drawing was in among the things I kept with me. Unfortunately, after a summer spent as a live-in babysitter (oh, that should be another TNB post) when I got to college that Fall the drawing wasn’t with me. I was too embarrassed to ask the family if they had found the drawing and the one time I went back to sit for them for a weekend, I checked all over that room, but it wasn’t there. The fact that I no longer had that drawing made everything worse and yet, at the same time, better. Looking at that damn drawing hurt.

  3. Greg Olear says:

    This is terrific, Robin. Lots of great lines (“a joke that only I knew”), and the emotional wallop at the end.

    I hope Blaise turned out okay…

    Great, great piece.

    • Thanks, Greg. I heard Blaise moved to Miami and then the Keys, of course, that was years ago. I never was brave enough to seek him out at the time. I was too young, too insecure, too unsure of what I would say to him about the drawing without crying or screaming or both. So I stayed away. You know, I’m not even sure what I would say to him now, maybe that’s why I wrote this.

  4. Wowza, this is amazing Robin. I see everything in your stories so clearly, Blaise, the mom, the beach house, the drawings, the sugar, and I love being in this space, watching it all unfold.

    Also, that’s a Pixie Stick I’m holding in my gravatar pic, and suddenly I feel all the more dangerous for it.

  5. Dana says:

    Robin, you have such a great way of sucking me down your rabbit hole. I can feel the temperature in the casita, and smell the sweetness. I want to read on and on…

  6. D.R. Haney says:

    You should one day collect your pieces about your teens in Florida and publish them together. This one fits beautifully beside the others. The image of the sunbathing mother evokes, for me, Diane Arbus, and the constant parties call to mind Boogie Nights. Of course comparisons are cheap, and you do what you do like no one else, the writing always so detailed and tactile.

    Blaise’s usual attire was, by the way, the unofficial dress code at my high school. All the elite kids had the preppie look down, and part of that look was that the clothes had to be faded or ragged in some way, as if to show that they’d been in the (affluent) family for a while and, more to the point, the wearer didn’t care much about them. The collars on the Lacoste shirts were usually turned up, and for years, on the rare occasions that I wore polo shirts, I would, out of habit, turn the collars up, causing my friends in New York to say disdainfully, “Preppie!” But I was never a preppie, just a recovering wannabe. It was the only game in town.

  7. Duke, it’s funny you should bring up Diane Arbus. She’s someone I refer to often while I’m writing. I can’t really read anything, so I’ve always sought out visual stimulus: Diane Arbus, Tina Barney, Sally Mann, their photographs stir something so deep, I can get lost. It helps to step inside that kind of world, makes it easier somehow to live in the one I’ve created and the real world that always lures me back.

    Those years in Florida had such an impact on my life, the littlest details seem to wend their way into my fiction in the most unexpected ways… just when I think I’ve mined the last detail something else floats to the surface. I suppose that’s why I keep doing this over and over again.

    Those clothes gave Blaise some invisibility…. along with the car and the house they added an accepted elegance and allowed him to navigate a world he knew absolutely nothing about; those clothes allowed him to create the illusion of history and family, and in a way the charade was as brave as it was heartbreaking.

    Thanks for reading, Duke. It means a lot to know you’re here.

  8. Joe Daly says:

    Robin-

    As someone above noted, the writing here really sucked me in- you built up the tension very effectively- subtle and full of lots of unique descriptors that made the final punch unexpected. At least for me. Well, I sort of saw the fist coming when the envelope arrived, but I couldn’t move my chin out of the way.

    Oh, and I’m just going to go ahead and admit that I had to Google “Karmann Ghia.” I thought it was a fancy lap dog. I grew up in Central Mass, where we thought that the most opulent car ever made was the Cadillac (and would then proceed to taunt Cadillac driving families for trying to “big time” us).

    Nicely done, Robin.

    • A Karmann Ghia was about the size of lap dog… you really had to like the passenger or driver… not a lot of personal space like a good old fashion Cadillac.

      Glad you enjoyed this, Joe. Thanks for reading.

  9. You have such a natural way with storytelling, that it’s easy to forget writing like this is not easy at all. Always a pleasure to read these memories of yours that you bring so sharply to life.

  10. Zara Potts says:

    Dearest Robin,
    It’s so good to read you. You always feel like the perfect breeze to me: You are a warm wind on a cool day, or a cool breeze on a hot day. You always are the perfect temperature.
    This piece is so wonderful. I have come to expect excellent characterisation from you, but the portrait you paint of Blaise and his mother are fantastic. I could almost smell the baby oil/coconut oil seeping from her enlarged pores.
    It’s such a blessing to have you on this site. I hope you know how much I look forward to seeing your name here on the front page…
    xxx

  11. Zara — the fact that you are here on TNB reading this and leaving your wonderful comments is all I need. xxo ~ r

  12. Erika Rae says:

    Wow, this was gorgeous. You write like an artist. Every stroke, so careful and vivid.

  13. Irene Zion says:

    Robin,

    This was simply lovely. I love reading your writing!

    • Irene… you ARE lovely, thanks for always reading. Aren’t you ready to jet off to another fabulous place with Victor soon?

      • Irene Zion says:

        HA!
        Robin, I’m as old as the hills, so if the hills are lovely, I guess so am I.
        Yup. We fly to Paris, rent a car and start driving hither and thither for about a month.
        Should be some tales to tell when I get back.
        We’re taking a computer, although it’s a PC, which I can’t decipher very well.
        My mac is ailing, alas.
        I will try to keep up to date with all of you.
        Keep writing pretty stuff, Robin!

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Robin,
    This is so, so beautiful, especially the final paragraph that leaves you breathless. I can’t wait to read more of your work.

    • I appreciate your wonderful comments, Elizabeth. I’ve been writing and re-writing ( and re-writing and re-writing) book number two and getting a chance to post here is always so freeing and energizing. There’s nothing like some good old TNB love.

  15. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Robin, you are an Adept at your art and craft. This is so beautifully drawn, structured with such amazing tension. If I ever taught again, I’d have to print the piece out and wave it around and say, “Aspire to this!”

    Blaise breaks my heart. Really. Almost as much as the friend’s brother you wrote about–the one who served in Vietnam.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Ronlyn, I am always so happy to find you in my comments! I needed to hear your words tonight…. you are a potent salve for this writer’s ego.

      Blaise broke my teenage heart, and it’s still tender in parts and the whole thing, so unresolved, all these years later, well, what else was I to do but write it out?

      How is book two coming along? You haven’t had any fires lately, have you? xxo

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Consider the salve a reminder of what you already know. 🙂

        Novel #2….Ever closer to an ever-shifting finish line. It decides to get a little more ambitious just when I think I’ve figured it out. *sigh* But really, it’s coming along. My new burn pile is starting to stack up. Thanks for asking.

        And what’s up with your next project? A noncommital answer is totally appropriate.

        • An ever-shifting finish line is better than none at all…. you sound more at peace about the state of the novel than the last time I asked, that can only be a good thing.

          Novel number two is no longer in my possession…. I rearranged the parts over and over and finally gave it up to my agent to read. So now I wait, which is really what I need to do so I can tend to some of the three dimensional people in my life.

          Such a life! And I would have it no other way.

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          It’s a tolerant peace, better than none. I’m glad to learn you’ve released yours for the next step! Congratulations!

  16. jmblaine says:

    I can tell good writing
    when it makes me nostalgic
    but the story
    is nothing I have lived through.

    Rare trick
    dear.

    Good show~

  17. Alison Aucoin says:

    Wow Robin, I was hooked and dying for more!

    I had a similar relationship in high school. When I was preparing for my 20th high school reunion my fiance at the time asked if there were any guys I dated who had a big impact on me & if I thought any would be there. Told him there was only one boy it would be intense to see but I figured he was dead or too burned out to attend. Imagine my surprise when he grabbed me from behind & twirled me around the room. He was there with his wife. They had two kids and he was the owner of an insurance agency in Houston. I was dumbfounded.

    • I have to ask: Did it somehow ruin it for you? Seeing him there and knowing he was living such a *normal* life? Did you catch a glimmer of the boy he once was?

      You know at first I was too angry to try and talk to him and then embarrassed and then, you know, time is a bitch and I just let it all go. I heard he had moved to Miami and then the Keys. But I never did anything about it. Which is probably why this ended up on TNB.

      Thanks so much for reading, Alison.

    • Sharon Wilks says:

      And this is why I don’t go to reunions. Some things need to be preserved in the past.

  18. Paula Austin says:

    Beautiful! This piece captivated my heart, caressed my senses and left me wanting more of the uncertainty of its flavor. I shall only dream.

    Strange Beauty

    There is a kind of strange beauty, in everything
    In the endless music, of uncertainty and the days
    That stretch on like two hands holding each other
    Once holding, something real, angelic, ethereal
    But now, there is a ghost silence, of twilight love
    And every word, unsaid, falling like rain on a window
    Comes to one end, of unending names inside a garden
    Filled with the unconscious whisperings of memory
    The hollow moon, a cardboard cutout above the Yew Tree
    Casts its speckled shadow, over death’s dangled drapery
    And wild sorrow, like funeral music, sings strange beauty……..

    Thanks for sharing this slice of your world
    ~paula

  19. angela says:

    robin, this is beautiful. this made me want to cry:

    I crawled onto the bed, nearly faint with fear. I didn’t want to be rejected by him, but I was more scared of something else, I just couldn’t name it.

    He held out his arm and I curled against the length of him, my face pressed into his shirt. I could feel his heart, or maybe it was my own.

    heart-breaking.

  20. Made me think of Lucien Freud. All the poolside languor and chaste/charged pairings. Of course a man named Blaise drives a green Kharmann Ghia. With Steely Dan or Roxy Music in the tape deck. Or is that giving him too much credit? Very evocative, Robin. I too spent many days in those “artist cubicles” with too-clever, non productive enigmas.

    • Wow — okay, your comment has me a little freaked. Freud along with John Currin and Alice Neel are among my favorite painters. Blaise looked like a cross between a Freud and Neel painting if that makes any sense. Of course I only see that now, but still, amazing that you mention Freud.

      And I cannot listen to Tuesday Afternoon or Deacon Blues to this day without feeling like I’ve been out to sea for days and have yet to get my land legs back.

      Too clever, non-productive enigmas, indeed. I think I spent too many years trying to figure out where I fit in, until I realized I didn’t want to. Thanks for reading, Sean.

      • Freaked is good. I really like John Currin as well. I would have stolen from him if I had the talent to pull it off. And yes, I understand perfectly what you mean. Exactly how I envisioned him.

  21. Sharon Wilks says:

    This was so lovely and bittersweet. Reminds me so much of relationships I have had in the past and makes me wonder what might have come of some of them. Thank you for this.

    • Thanks, Sharon. A lot of people have asked what became of Blaise – and I can only say what I have heard from others, that he moved to Miami and eventually the Keys. There was always a combination of fear and shame and longing where he was concerned and you know, that was who I was at 18! While I tortured myself with “what ifs” I never had the guts to go and find out what would have happened if we tried to relate to each other as adults. If only for a conversation. I suppose that is a rule of thumb for all my past relationships. I write about them, but never actually re-visit them in the flesh and blood of it all.

  22. Jorge says:

    I know I am late to the party, Robin, but fantastic piece!

    An extremely enjoyable read.

  23. Simon Smithson says:

    Man, this reads like a teen movie. Not John Hughes; something a little realer, and closer to the bone.

    Although it weirds me out that Blaine would stop to ask if you though Christopher would touch you in the same way.

  24. Oh my dear Simon! Hello! That evening ( and indeed the entire time I spent with Blaise) was weird, wonderful, a tad magical, but also embarrassing and sort of shameful. I never had the nerve to go back and ask him what exactly that night meant. Although I suspect that he might have longed for Christopher and I mistakenly thought he wanted me. It all goes to crap from there, doesn’t it? The drawing for me was a sort of twisted apology. Or maybe I was just reading what I wanted into the whole thing. I’ll never know.

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